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Homeless Laws Get Mixed Results

By Oliver Lukacs
Staff Writer

May 12 – Two get-tough laws to crack down on the number of transients flocking to Santa Monica seem to have had little visible impact since they were passed a year and a half ago, according to City officials and data obtained by The Lookout.

The ordinances – which were passed after frustrated Bayside merchants complained that the homeless were driving away business – were intended to make it harder to grab a free meal and find a place to sleep in the Downtown area.

But the law to ban sleeping in Downtown doorways has led to a series of arrests that indicate the problem is not going away. And despite a law restricting the distribution of free food in public parks, large numbers of homeless can still be seen standing in long lines in the city’s feeding hotspots throughout the week.

To skirt the intent of the ordinance, volunteers are posting signs proclaiming “Family Picnic,” and the crowds have been split into smaller subgroups to abide by a provision regulating events with 150 or more people.

Still, the ordinance – which targeted the mostly out-of-town charity workers coming to Santa Monica to hand out free meals – has made a dent in the problem, according to Julie Rusk, the City’s manager of human services.

“From the community visibility perspective, the larger groups and the more visible groups are continuing,” Rusk said. “Some of the smaller groups have changed their practices or gone away, but that may be less visible to people.”

The law, which requires food providers to obtain a County health permit for any public feeding and a City permit for groups of more than 150 people, was passed in the hopes of forcing food providers to link up with the City’s indoor social services, or to push them out of town.

Only two groups have linked their free carrot to the City’s multi-million dollar social services stick, but the number of food providers has seemingly dwindled from more than a dozen, mostly small out of town groups, to four large deliverers, who continue their work in Memorial Park, Reed Park, City Hall and the Palisades bluffs, Rusk said.

“It’s a small but modest success,” said Rusk, referring to the groups who have linked up to the City’s $8 million continuum of care, which services roughly 3,000 of the 4,000 homeless circulating through Santa Monica each year. “We have accomplished part of what we set out to do, but there is still a lot to do.”

Enforcing the law is the biggest problem. By dividing into subgroups the providers have managed to skirt the regulation, and since the City adopted the law, not one group has applied for the local permit.

“They’re complying with the law,” said Lt. Frank Fabrega, spokesman for the Santa Monica Police Department. “There have not been the violations for exceeding the number of people who can be fed.”

Fabrega added that only one violation of the local permit law has been reported.

Furthermore, the primary enforcement agency for groups under 150 people, the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, has limited its efforts mainly to an education campaign.

“They’ve done a lot on the education end, but on enforcement it’s been less than what we had originally expected,” said Rusk, who hastened to add that due to the state budget crisis the County is “strapped for resources.”

If the law, which was piggybacked on state health and safety codes, hasn’t completely deterred the food giveaways, it has apparently succeeded in its professed goal of making sure the food is safe to eat.

While he could not provide specific numbers, Terrance Powell, chief environmental health specialist for L.A. County’s Department of Health Services, said his department has “approved most, if not all” the applications submitted by food providers.

“In a nutshell, there’s no new news,” Powell said.

On the sleeping front, the news is also ambiguous. The law prohibiting the homeless from lying down in storefront doorways Downtown is netting results, but it is unclear if it is making headway in discouraging transients from hanging out on and around the Third Street Promenade.

Since the law kicked in with the feeding ordinance in October 2002, the SMPD has handed out 131 citations. As with the feeding ordinance – which is being challenged by the National Lawyer’s Guild – violators face up to six months in jail or $1,000 in fines, or both.

“They’re cited and if they don’t have any proper identification, they’re arrested and taken to the next court date,” said Fabrega, adding that if those cited have proper identification, they’re given a court date.

As of January, 45 cases have been prosecuted by the City, according to City Attorney Marsha Moutrie.

However, City officials acknowledge that it is unclear if the law is having an impact on the antisocial behavior it is meant to discourage.
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